18 September 2009

Bill C-435 suggests a route to fair trade

On Wednesday, New Democrat International Trade Critic Peter Julian tabled a Private Member’s bill in the House of Commons which suggests a way "free" trade agreements might be turned into fair trade agreements. The bill, the Made in Canada Procurement Act (C-435), intended to ensure Canadian companies and industries are given top priority on all government procurements and services, calls on Ottawa to purchase goods and services from countries and companies that adhere to the International Labour Organization (ILO)'s core labour standards.

The bill's requirement of preferential treatment for Canadian companies and industries could be argued as interfering in free trade, but the requirement that countries and companies meet ILO labour standards could not. On the contrary, it would ensure freedom for workers and could, therefore, be argued more sensibly as contributing to free trade as well as fair trade.

The core labour standards of the ILO are contained in the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The section on freedom of association states, "The right of workers and employers to form and join organizations of their choice is an integral part of a free and open society. It is a basic civil liberty that serves as a building block for social and economic progress. Linked to this is the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining. Voice and representation are an important part of decent work."

Not that trade agreements ignore worker rights entirely. NAFTA, for example, has a side agreement on worker rights; unfortunately, it is toothless. For the most part it simply insists that countries enforce their own labour laws, whatever those might be, and only three out of 11 principles can be enforced by sanctions. Freedom of association and the right to organize can only be enforced by discussion which pretty well reduces them to nothing more than talking points.

Including ILO standards in trade agreements, along with rigid enforcement mechanisms including sanctions, would be a good start to ensuring the agreements serve workers as well as corporations.

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